Strange Radiation

Andrew Willett, unreliable narrator.

Author: Andrew Page 2 of 65

Sometimes You Have to Stay Up Late and Write Stuff Down

I got off the subway this evening at my usual stop, from my usual position at the door directly ahead of the conductor, which lets me off right in front of the exit. But as my neighbors and I squeezed off the train I got edged just far enough back from the front of the pack that it was impossible to break free. I was caught in the mob, trapped in second gear, forced to wait my turn at the turnstile and on the stairs. And as we shuffled up to the surface I noticed how the melting snow had left behind this horrible black goop slopped into the creases of every tread in the staircase, and I started composing a footnote.

The horrible black goop on the stairs is the same crust of soot that covers the snowdrifts on the sidewalks up on the street. It gets mixed in with the snow as it falls, but at first it’s hard to see: it’s too thinly distributed. But when the snow melts, most of the soot is left behind, so you get smaller and smaller snowdrifts that turn blacker and blacker and blacker. The rest is carried as silt by the melting snow as it drains into the stairwells, and is left behind on the steps.

All true, but I wondered why the sudden urge to analyze a random corner of urban living. But then I thought, Oh. It’s because I’ve been reading the new Finder collection.

Finder is a black and white science-fiction comic that Carla Speed McNeil started self-publishing in 1996. It has gotten a lot of critical notice over the years but has achieved nowhere near the wide readership it deserves. It’s been picked up by Dark Horse: they published the first new story volume in years this week, called Voice, and will be collecting the previous seven volumes in two omnibus editions this year.

What’s it about? It’s about life a very very very long time from now, when most humans (and humanish people) are living in vast domed cities but some people (human or otherwise) live outside the walls. It’s about culture and the ways we fight the rules we live under. It’s about the things that we decide make our lives worth living, and the ways we protect them. It’s about a drifter named Jaeger who comes and goes, who’s an outsider everywhere, and how he gets in and out of trouble. (Women are often involved.)

McNeil’s characters are vivid, sensitive, thoroughly realized. Her art is gorgeous. (I mean, check out the kid leaping along the top of her blog. So expressive. When she draws people dancing, you can feel the air they displace as they move.) And her worldbuilding is top-notch. It’s so dense, in fact, that the various volumes all have extensive footnotes in the back, just to point out all the cool stuff that would otherwise be missed as the story sweeps along. That young woman? Studying for full adult acceptance into the clan of her birth, which in her case means hours of mental mathematics. That girl? Actually a guy, but her clan all looks female. That vine covered with television screens? Grows like kudzu. Runs pirate broadcasts. Every square inch of what you can see has a story.

I’ve got a real sweet tooth for dense worldbuilding myself, and McNeil’s knack for invented anthropology just floors me. Between the comics and the footnotes, I can read and reread Finder for hours. I met McNeil at the NY Comic Con in the fall and had a total fanboy meltdown, burbling excitedly at her for much too long and then only realizing after I walked away that I’d left out the part where I actually introduce myself. ([Facepalm].)

I really should be in bed right now. I just finished packing for Boskone — too many shirts, for sure, but I couldn’t decide — and I’m crazy tired, and the bus to Boston waits for no man. But I wanted to put this out there. You should be reading Finder.

We Live In The Future, vol. 732

Time to close a browser tab. Hey, look! Finnish a cappella singers gone wild! A nice tech demo combined with a good arrangement. I approve. (But I’m still not convinced I need an iPad. Fun as it looks.)

Learning Experience

Six years ago I started thinking about a novel. Six months ago, I started writing it. And yesterday, to my surprise and delight and relief, I finished the first draft. I am pleased to announce the birth of MOJO CITY, Version 1.0, weight 98,000 words, length 450 double-spaced pages.

To do it, I had to learn a bunch of different lessons: How not to let fear of the blank page keep me from starting at all; how to maintain forward momentum on a project that, when I started, seemed impossible; how to navigate the straits between leaving room in the writing process for spontaneous moments of invention and knowing exactly how my story was going to get me from A to B to C and on to Z. But most of all, I had to learn how to write an imperfect draft without leaping off the balcony.

I mean, you hear this over and over: Your first draft will stink. Everyone’s first draft stinks. That’s what they do. But it’s one thing to hear that delivered as fact, even from teachers you respect at writer camp, and quite another to believe it. My own impulse toward perfectionism has always been my own worst enemy. It kept me from starting the book for years: what if I turn a good idea into a bad book? With a short story, you really can put off starting the first paragraph until you have the whole thing mapped out in your head. It’s a strategy that will produce completed pieces. But when you’re about to embark on a voyage of 98,000 words? Safer for now just to keep adding notes to the pile. Start later, when you’re more sure of what you’re doing.

But no. Did you know that if your character is standing outside a blown-up pizza joint talking to some cops but you really need him to be in Washington Square, eating falafel with a bodhisattva, but you don’t know quite how to get him out of his current conversation, you can just write


and come back later? Like, in the second draft? And that’s a totally acceptable thing to do? So you can go on and write the scene that you actually have in your head, instead of agonizing over a transition that will make more sense later? It’s true! I did it. So can you. You can also direct your main character to the scene of an incident at $INTERSECTION, and then have him later meet a friend to hear a band called $CLEVER NAME.

This was a revelation. And, more important, it was the crack in the dam that let me get out of my own way and just write the damn book. Characters flat? Fix it in the next draft. Language undescriptive? Fix it in the next draft. Causality questionable? Chronology dodgy? Geography unreliable? It doesn’t matter. In the words of James Thurber, “Don’t get it right. Just get it written.”

You probably knew all this already, dear reader. But I spent a few long years fighting to absorb this truth into the marrow of my bones. And I don’t want to forget it. So I’m putting it here.

So that’s what I’ve been up to instead of writing the blog. How about you?

Well, That Was A New One

All downtown traffic on the downtown E/F was halted for several very long minutes this afternoon because (the conductor eventually explained) “the control-tower guy locked himself out of the tower.”

While I Were Out

Right! Blog! Where were we — June? Yes. Summer was lovely, thanks. I’ve begun working on that novel I’ve been yammering on about for years now and we’ll see how that goes. I dunno how much I’ll talk about it here, at least until I’m through the first draft, but now you know. Light a candle for me. As a plan-obsessed control-freak sort of writer, thundering through a draft where it’s not only acceptable but also expected to have a paragraph end with something like THIS IS WHERE YOU’LL NEED A TRANSITION BEFORE YOUR HERO AND THE BODHISATTVA WALK OFF TO GET FALAFEL has been both liberating and terrifying. Lots of work to do on that ms today; I skipped town a little while back to turn 40 in Minnesota on a lake with my relations and then to go to Burning Man, and my momentum took a big hit and needs to be rebuilt. So today is a Get Your Groove On sort of day, much as I’d rather be at the Maker Faire.

But first! Let me tell you about last night, spent hanging out in piano bars with Velma, because she’s a bad influence. There was Old School Theatre Queen Action at Marie’s Crisis, where I had not set foot since my first week in NYC, back in 1993. And thence to the Duplex, which has somehow fit a baby grand piano into the downstairs space. And then V and I invented the next big filksinging genre: Lovecraftian R&B. That would be Rugose and Batrachian, obviously.

The first greatest-hits collection will contain:

  • “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (To Be Eaten First)”
  • “Ain’t No Mountain Mad Enough”
  • “I Say A Little Prayer to You”
  • “Respect (For the Old Ones)”
  • “Not Just My Imagination”

I welcome any reminders of songs we’ve left off the list.

Public Service Announcement: DateTags and MT4

For those using StaggerNation’s DateTags plugin with Movable Type 4 (or, presumably, 5): there was a change in the MT3 —> MT4 transition with how entries’ date information is handled. This change can make DateTags behave in odd ways in cases where posts are assigned publishing dates other than the dates on which they were originally written — for instance, if you’re writing entries today and assigning publishing dates three weeks from now, because you’re using DateTags to create a calendar of upcoming events. To address this problem, do a global find-and-replace in your plugins/ file: where you see created_on, replace it with authored_on.

That is all.

Things You Can Do With the Internet

  1. Play lots and lots of Echo Bazaar, an online RPG set in Victorian-London-that-has-been-dragged-into-a-cavern-beneath-the-Earth.
  2. Enlist your friends’ help to prevent two visiting Russian women from becoming victims of human trafficking in New York City.

The first option is absolutely engrossing, if it’s the sort of thing you find engrossing, and can be done solo. The second option is… well, just read the link. A member of the MetaFilter message board posts a cry for help; over the next 24 hours, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers rally to keep two women from vanishing into god-knows-what. Astonishing, inspiring reading, and I only found out about it after the dust settled. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a MeFi reader caught up in events as they unfolded. It makes you wonder how many stories end differently right here in New York every week because the victims don’t have a squad of internet people looking out for them.

Shut Up and Tell Her What She Needs to Know, or What I Am Willing to Put Up With When Connie Willis Is Pulling the Strings

Greetings from page 26, or the end of Chapter 3, of Connie Willis’s new novel Blackout, which is where I closed the book when stepping off the bus to tonight’s rehearsal. It’s another time-travel novel1 centered on the historians of Oxford University, who — because the laws of time travel as they are understood prevent pretty much anything else — bounce around through the less-scrutinized corners of the past, observing the goings-on and not affecting much of anything. And while in general I see holding a copy of a new Connie Willis book in my hands as a good thing, I am concerned. I shall discuss my concerns in a nonspoilery fashion below.

What gave me pause? Well, it’s the way in which I couldn’t even get to the end of the chapter without saying, Oh no, we’re not playing this game again, are we? The game being the one where someone has a piece of important information to impart that, because of communications difficulties (bad handwriting, something blowing up, an inability to get a moment to sit down and talk like grownups for just 30 seconds), cannot be imparted; and thus is the plot created, a long chain of missed connections and misunderstandings and oh my god I am going to reach right into this book and slap all of you until you sit around a table and calmly compare notes. Willis has employed this trick before, of course, and depending on your tolerance for this particular flavor of contrivance you may feel she does it very well: I loved her time-travelers-do-Victorian-travel-memoirs romcom To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is full of it, as is her time-traveler-free romcom Bellwether. There’s even some of it in her wrenching debut novel Doomsday Book: somebody knows what’s going on, and if only he could just relay it to the right person the book would be a hell of a lot shorter and less eventful.

But it does get irritating after a while, or perhaps as time has gone by and I have put more energy into telling stories myself it has become harder for me to ignore a big noisy machine marked PLOT DEVICE DO NOT TOUCH sitting in the corner of the room. And so when in Chapter 3 — in which we see many, many people trying to get important information out of people they can’t locate, because no one’s ever where they’re expected to be — there’s an extended sequence revolving around an illegible phone message that the surly roommate has taken but is unavailable to explicate, I had a moment of panic. But by the end of the chapter the roommate has been found and cajoled into translating and events have moved on. At which point I decided that Willis had been fucking with our heads and heaved a great relieved sigh. We’ll see, I guess. I’m probably being way too optimistic.

Thinking about this sequence, though, revealed a bigger problem, or at least a big thorny weirdness, with the book. Because the narrative “now,” the future era from which these time travelers are setting forth, is 2060, and people are still getting crucial, time-sensitive information to one another by calling their rooms and asking their roommates to leave a note by the telephone. It would seem that we’re reading about a future in which nobody knows how to send a text message, in which nobody thinks to send an e-mail to all graduate researchers that says, “You will have noticed that we’re rescheduling all your trips into the past on short notice, and here’s why it has to be this way,” in which it’s impossible to ping your roommate with a simple WHERE R U? And that, in a novel published this year, is kind of nuts.

I think it’s because we’re looking at a future that is already nearly 30 years old. Willis’s short story “Fire Watch,” which established this continuity, was published in 1983, and Doomsday Book came out in 1992. And given the state of technology then, it probably never occurred to Willis that her future of 2060 needed to be mapped out via the ubiquitous smart phones and text messaging of 2010. (See also the dazzling future of 2001 in Carl Sagan’s Contact, written in 1985: the big schmancy technology in that book is the wondrous “telefax.”) Perhaps, having envisioned a world without such devices, Willis feels obliged to stick with her original set of tools. I know that trying to pull off such a retcon would feel like cheating to me if I were writing it. What do you think?

I rambled on at some length2 about all this to one of my fellow singers on the crosstown bus after rehearsal. He asked if I intended to finish the book, and I probably looked at him like he’d lost his mind. I’m a long way from wanting to give up. But I sure as hell hope that actual communication starts to occur somewhere along the way. I’ll let you know.

1 More accurately, it’s the first half of a novel in two parts. The second half comes out this fall. I had planned to wait for all of it to come out, or for the paperback of Vol. 1 at least, but then I found a cheap copy at the Strand and my resolve imploded.

2 Yeah, yeah.

Yet Another Demonstration of Why Marriage Equality Matters

Because nobody would ever do this sort of thing to an elderly straight couple:

Clay and his partner of 20 years, Harold, lived in California. Clay and Harold made diligent efforts to protect their legal rights, and had their legal paperwork in place—wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, all naming each other. Harold was 88 years old and in frail medical condition, but still living at home with Clay, 77, who was in good health.

One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes.

They weren’t finished there: to pay for the bills, the county decided that Clay and Harold’s house and all its contents would be auctioned off. And three months later, Harold died, alone.

Read more at the website of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Thanks to Towleroad for the tip.

Books/Baked Goods/Memewrangling

So I went to Books of Wonder, the best kids’ bookstore in NYC or anywhere else in the universe, so far as I can tell, the other day. My niece is turning 7 shortly, and I had duties to perform. (She recently saw Coraline, and expressed a desire to read the book. How can I say no? She’s also getting the fabulous Clan Apis. Science!)

Anyway, you can’t go to BoW without stopping at the cupcake counter. Or I can’t, anyway: it’s run by the fabulous Cupcake Cafe people. You can keep Magnolia Bakery’s vapid and oversweet efforts — the only reason people eat them, far as I can tell, is because they saw them on Sex and the City. For my money, CC’s dense cake and heavenly buttercream frosting whomp MB’s efforts into next week. And that’s without mentioning how totally beautiful their creations are to look at. Almost a shame to eat them, almost.

I told a friend about my visit — okay, I gloated about it — and he asked, “Did you take a picture for that website?”

“What website?”

Dudes with beards eating cupcakes.”

No, I didn’t, for the record. Maybe next time. But I was pleased to note it as an addition to an emerging internet meme: blogs entirely devoted to juxtapositions of three things. The other two sites I’ve seen are Selleck/Waterfall/Sandwich and Bea Arthur/Mountains/Pizza, which offer endless collections of weird surrealist landscapes. Dudes/Beards/Cupcakes doesn’t have the others’ zen-bouquet quality; instead it feels more like somebody’s personal fetish run amok. It’s noteworthy, I think, that they’re all tumblr blogs, but whether that tells us something about tumblr or the state of web culture in general I’m not sure. As to the inevitable why? In the words of Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing, “Because INTERNET.” And that’s the best explanation we’re likely to get.

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